Curbing Illegal Fireworks Usage in Hawaii: What Do We Do?

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The recent 2010 New Year celebrations highlighted illegal aerials and booming bombs throughout Oahu. With the new legislative session upon us once again, calls for a complete ban on individual fireworks use are permeating in the news and blogosphere. If Hawaii residents would just follow the existing laws, the calls for a ban would be minimal. Unfortunately, many people blatantly disregard our laws, and many residents are angry and upset at the perceived lack of action being taken by law enforcement. HPD did respond to many calls, and it has been reported there was an increase in citations this year. With the high number of calls and limited resources, however, they could only do so much.

I have heard that booming bombs started as early as September in some areas of Oahu. Someone even told me the bombs go off year round. Certainly by Thanksgiving, it was common to hear the bombs or see illegal aerial fireworks in residential neighborhoods.
Our dilemma at the Legislature is our constituency is split when it comes to a fireworks ban except for cultural and religious reasons and commercial regional presentations. There are many who say fireworks are an island and Asian tradition that is celebrated by numerous families. Others feel the noise and smoke are too much for those with health or breathing problems and pets in particular. One news station reported there had been pet deaths due to illegal usage. With a divided constituency, there is no consensus among lawmakers on the right course of action.


In October 2009, the Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee held an informational briefing at the Capitol focusing on the smuggling of illegal aerial fireworks into Hawaii.

The Federal Aviation Administration, HPD, county fireworks inspectors, civil defense staff, fireworks industry, state Department of Transportation, a Matson rep and others testified on their expertise.

One gaping hole we found was the domestic containers brought into Hawaii from the mainland by Matson and Horizon do not include enough random inspections. Only about about 5% of those containers are randomly inspected. I believe this is unacceptable in our state. Thus if at least 100,000 containers are imported, at least 95,000 are not inspected at all. It’s easy to see where some of the illegal contraband is coming from.

What is also alarming is the random inspections do not include the use of sniffing dogs or explosive detection equipment. One would think that post-September 11 these items would be used for domestic container inspections, but I found they are not. This is also unacceptable, and residents must demand better security and inspection methods from government officials.

Conversely and ironically, when it comes to foreign containers from abroad, 100% of the containers are inspected. The threat from foreign shores is serious but I question the wisdom in the drastic discrepancy between foreign and domestic container inspections.

Apparently the threat of domestic contraband does not rise to the level of foreign contraband, and this mentality must change. State and federal officials must address this open sieve when it comes to container inspections. I feel more must be done. It does not make any sense to place a high priority on foreign containers and what I call a low priority on domestic containers.

The state Department of Agriculture advised me that agricultural containers are 100% inspected from the mainland to combat invasive species. If we can provide resources for invasive species, we should be able to increase resources for other contraband such as explosives and methamphetamine.

Our briefing also found that explosives are arriving by mail. Mail courier companies like Fed-Ex for example do not routinely x-ray packages for explosives. The FAA and TSA are involved here, and I was told passenger planes get more scrutiny and attention than air cargo planes and that seems reasonable. In one instance for example, fireworks were discovered only because the shipped package had torn open.

Lacking a ban of fireworks, what should the Legislature do? Two places to seek assistance are our Congressional delegation and the Department of Homeland Security. The state should request federal funding to improve our port and air cargo security since a dirty bomb or other high explosives detonated in Waikiki or downtown would have devastating effects on our economy.

More resources for law enforcement to catch and convict blatant law breakers are needed as well. An increase in import and user fees is a way to raise funds for law enforcement. Stronger penalties and punishment against law breakers are also warranted. I would like to see the fine doubled from $2000 to $4000 for disregarding some of our fireworks laws. This session I will be introducing legislation to address these matters.

Many Hawaii residents reading this article know neighbors or friends who broke the law or are still breaking the law with loud bombs or illegal aerial fireworks. Local attitudes must change and family members or others must become responsible and stop illegal activity. Frankly, the negative actions of a few are pushing this debate, and if residents don’t start respecting our laws and the rights of their neighbors, an outright ban on individual fireworks could be a possibility.

Finally, in this election year, ask your current elected officials and candidates for office how they feel about fireworks. Do they support a ban? Will they support more funding for law enforcement? How will they secure our harbors better? As a society, we must tackle on this issue as it is not likely to go away.

‘Will Espero is the Chair of the Senate Public Safety & Military Affairs Committee’